The onslaught of television shows, movies, advertisements, and pop culture can skew the perception of a normal human life. We unconsciously form an idea of what there is to expect in life: peak physical fitness and attractiveness, perfect love, and material happiness. Young people especially can become enamored with this picture, making it the standard of a fulfilling life. But this ignores a very real aspect of our existence. What is more likely to happen in our lives: bodily perfection and material satisfaction, or suffering?
Before Adam sinned, he and Eve lived in original justice, a state sustained by grace that included inner harmony, a harmony within the mind and of the body. This meant no suffering and no death. For a brief time, suffering was not known. By Adam’s disobedience, however, this gift of original justice that was supposed to be handed down was lost. Immortality and freedom from suffering were gone, leaving our nature weakened and inclined to sin.
But, Jesus, the new Adam, transformed the state of our existence by dying on the cross. As St. Peter says, “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24). By Christ’s death and resurrection, we are freed from original sin, and life with God in heaven is made possible.
While we wait in hope for heavenly glory, we suffer during this life on earth because of the effects of sin. Our suffering, though, is not in vain. It is a participation in Jesus’s own suffering: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1 Pet 2:21). Following in Christ’s footsteps by offering up our suffering to God prepares us to continue following in his footsteps unto eternal life.
Must we suffer with Christ? Again, we can ask the question: what is more likely to happen in our lives—bodily perfection and material satisfaction, or suffering? Our physical deterioration is inevitable as we age. Wheelchairs and the return of diapers are in our future. Bed baths, walking with a walker, and amnesia are all real possibilities. The helplessness and reliance on others that mark this later stage of life can be frightening, and so it is easy to ignore it until we are in the clutches of old age.
How can we prepare spiritually for this bodily suffering? With constant practice over a lifetime, we can form a habit of prayer, an awareness of the presence of God, and firmly rooted virtue. Moreover, the Church has given us this season of Lent to consider suffering, particularly the greatest mystery of suffering: God suffering on the cross. Contemplating the cross now—like the Dominican saints in the image above—prepares us for when our body becomes our cross. Staying close to Christ and his cross transforms this suffering into an eternal reward. Embracing the cross, we are ready to follow Christ into eternal life, where one day our bodies will be glorified supernaturally as we share in God’s life.
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. (used with permission)